In a way, New Community Jewish High School’s Purim shpiels said it all. For the past several years, students at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) — founded in 2002 and commonly known as New Jew, for short — would use the opportunity of Purim, when it’s customary to perform humorous skits, to make fun of their school’s biggest shortcoming — namely that students ate lunch on a parking lot because, well, as tenants renting temporary space from a West Hills synagogue, there was nowhere else for them to eat.
Next Purim, students at NCJHS will have to find another target to lampoon. On Aug. 29, the first day of its 2013-2014 school year, NCJHS will open at its new — and permanent — home, the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, which offers plenty of places to eat on its four-acre campus, and none of them parking lots.
“We are moving from about 35,000 square feet of usable space into 100,000 square feet. So that’s an important statistic, and that alone gives you more room, gives us grass area, gives us a campus feel,” Bruce Powell, the school’s head of school, said during a recent campus tour.
For the school to finally open its doors at the Bernard Milken campus follows a minor drama that ensued involving the property’s former owner, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and its former major tenant, the JCC at Milken. In October 2011, NCJHS settled on a deal with Federation, the then-owners of the campus, to purchase the property with a down payment of $2 million — at the end of nearly a year of negotiations.
The JCC at Milken had been suffering financial difficulties for several years and announced in early 2012 that it would close, after it and the Federation failed to reach a plan allowing the JCC to continue operating there.
The school’s entire initiative — including its purchase of the property, two phases of construction and creating an endowment — was budgeted at $36 million. As of the opening, with the first phase of construction complete, the endowment is growing and the second phase of construction is expected to happen, provided the school can continue to raise funds. So far NCJHS has raised $17 million in cash and pledges.
The Federation currently holds the mortgage on the property, which includes a 65,000-square-foot building in the front and a 35,000-square-foot building in the back.
The deal marks the first time in NCJSH’s history that the school has a home to call its own. It also marks its return, full circle, to the Bernard Milken campus, where NCJHS, as a tenant, opened its doors with just 49 students in September 2002.
One of several science labs at the new campus.
The school’s student population doubled in size by its second year, which forced the school to seek out a new site.
The site they found was at Shomrei Torah Synagogue, a West Hills-based synagogue a few miles away from the Bernard Milken campus. Two modular, customized prefabricated buildings were installed on the grounds of Shomrei Torah, equipped with everything the school needed.
The school remained at Shomrei Torah for nine years, growing to become one of the largest Jewish high schools in the country, until its move this summer back to the Bernard Milken campus.
According to Powell, the school didn’t need to move. New Jew was thriving at Shomrei Torah, even in temporary buildings with the students eating in the parking lot.
But he said there were practical reasons to do it.
For one, the school will have more space than ever. The new home has 36 learning spaces. These includes classrooms — the largest of which is 1,200 square feet — while at Shomrei Torah the largest classroom was half that size — as well as a 10,000-square-foot basketball gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool and a large grassy field where students can eat, hang out and relax, and where a vegetable garden will be planted.
Only the baseball team will have to travel to another site to play — the touch-football team will compete at a park across the street from the school, an improvement over the school’s prior situation in regard to athletics, where basketball, swimming and volleyball teams had to travel to the Bernard Milken campus to use its facilities.
And the nearly year-long project of renovations — led by Gensler, a global architecture firm — included transforming the JCC at Milken’s Finegood Art Gallery into three classrooms, which was achieved by putting up new walls; turning a conference room into an instrumental music room; carving up multiple small offices into additional classrooms; and taking empty classrooms that were run by the JCC and turning them into science labs with state-of-the-art equipment.
NCJHS also redid the gymnasium floor so that it now bears the logo of their mascot, the Jaguars; they added new carpeting and new coats of paint to the entire front building and installed new floors in the back building, the Masor Lounge, which houses the athletics facilities, a student store and more.
Meanwhile, the community Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy, which rented out the pool from the JCC at Milken as its main tenant, will continue to lease the facility. Additionally, NCJHS has set up a committee tasked with finding other sources of rental income.
Sometimes during renovation, Gensler was forced to get creative and work around shear walls that hold up the foundation of the building. In these cases, multiple rooms that might have been turned into a single classroom were repurposed as spaces where students can do group work.
The school has stepped up its technology game as well: 30 of the 36 classrooms are equipped with short-throw projectors that turn blank walls into interactive whiteboards. And wireless Internet will be available campus-wide.
Powell reiterated the most important aspects of the school remain its faculty, the learning Jewish concept that knowledge leads to wisdom and the secular concept that knowledge leads to power, as well as the students’ eagerness to engage with this.
All the tech and amenities in the world aren’t important, if they aren’t used correctly, he said.
“I can have Mickey Mantle’s glove, but I’m not going to play like Mickey Mantle.”
Still, as he walked around the school’s new home, he was beaming.
“The bricks and mortar don’t necessarily change everything,” he said, “but it does give you a better baseball glove.”